Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Big D, a Year of K-Far

To date, as the scorekeepers are keenly aware, Benedict XVI has already named new heads for one-fifth of Stateside Catholicism's 195 local churches over the 37 months of his pontificate.

Yet of them all, the largest diocese Papa Ratzi's filled on these shores hasn't been a metropolitan see or Northeastern outpost, but Dallas, where the Catholic population has quintupled since 1990 and currently stands in excess of 1.1 million (plus the over 2,000 converts Big D brought in at the Big E... i.e. Easter).

While that bit of trivia will soon change with appointments of new archbishops for the 1.5 million-member flock in Detroit and, in time, the 2.5 million strong bastion of New York, the stat as-is has shone a spotlight not just on the South's rapid ascent to center stage of the nation's ecclesiastical map, but on the figure sent to unite the conflict-ridden Dallas church: Kevin Farrell, the Irish-born onetime-Legionary, who served as second-in-command in his adopted home of Washington until his transfer to Texas.

Installed a year ago this month, Big D's Morning News recently spent a day with Farrell to mark the close of his "whirlwind" beginning in Cowboys' Nation:
Bishop Kevin Farrell put 12,000 miles on a Toyota Avalon during his first year as leader of the nine-county Catholic Diocese of Dallas, visiting far-flung churches and schools.

He recalls some rookie mistakes, such as scheduling himself for a late morning in Bonham followed by an early afternoon in Corsicana – more than 100 miles away. He also acknowledges sometimes arriving incognito at a church, without collar, to say prayers but also to get an unfiltered feel for the place.

It was a full immersion course in North Texas. And it grew into a charm offensive, as he tried to raise spirits in a diocese hard hit by clergy sex abuse and attendant litigation and publicity.

"I feel very strongly that I have to unite the Catholic community," he said. "It's gone through hell for the last 10 years. I've listened to the people in the parishes. I've heard them talk about the past. I feel now is a chance for us to turn the corner."

After a cautious beginning, Bishop Farrell has begun to assert himself, making major personnel changes at diocese headquarters. He's also speaking plainly about the challenge of helping the diocese – which has grown to more than 1 million Catholics – catch up in staffing, infrastructure and fundraising.

"I am faced with, I would say, staggering needs, and I have no financial resources," he said.

Early reviews of Bishop Farrell as a genial, energetic new leader have taken on dimension.

"He's a man of action and good sense," said Nancy Gray, safe environment director at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Lake Highlands.

Jerry Lastelick – a Dallas lawyer and part of a group that unsuccessfully tried to oust Bishop Farrell's predecessor, Charles Grahmann, over his handling of clergy sex abuse cases – sees Bishop Farrell's outreach efforts as creating a new dynamic in the diocese.

"People are willing to saddle up and get in the posse with him," Mr. Lastelick said....

Bishop Farrell, who had to help close failing parishes and schools in the Washington area, gets animated talking about how even inner-city parishes here are well-attended.

But the clergy sex abuse scandal that clouded U.S. Catholicism rained on the Diocese of Dallas, bringing multimillion-dollar legal settlements, much negative publicity, and division among the faithful over whether Bishop Grahmann should keep his job. (Bishop Farrell said he inherited a handful of abuse cases, some in "active negotiations" for settlement.)

Even the diocese's growth has had a shadow side, causing a critical need for new church and school buildings, particularly in poor Hispanic parishes. Meanwhile, the nationwide priest shortage is acute here.

"I could open up five parishes, just like that, and they would be full," Bishop Farrell said. "I don't have the priests."...

One day recently, he visited three Dallas-area schools, then drove to Waxahachie to lead a confirmation Mass, lingering until about 10 p.m. to shake hands and pose for photographs. He enjoys the public role, and he engages young people, in particular, with an easy, teasing manner.

"Sit down," he told St. Rita Catholic School eighth-graders who had risen when he entered their classroom. "I'm not the pope."...

There has been buzz about Bishop Farrell's decision to have the diocese take out a 30-year mortgage on a 6,000-square-foot, $1.3 million house in northwest Dallas. He's living in the house and said at least two more priests eventually will join him.

Bishop Farrell stayed in leased housing at first, but believed that was throwing diocese money away. He said he determined early that one of his priorities would have to be fundraising and that he would need quarters where he could meet with potential major contributors.

"I can go to all the chicken dinners in the parishes, but do you think that's going to solve my financial problems?" he said, ticking off specific building needs and debts of local Catholic churches and schools.

Neil O'Brien, a Dallas lawyer long active in Catholic causes, said he could understand if some questioned the purchase. But he doesn't.

"There's no place I know of, other than the chancery, where the bishop can invite people," he said. "There can and should be a way to get more laity involved and raise more money."

Bishop Farrell said he is committed to helping John Paul II High School in Plano reduce a debt that he puts at $30 million. Parishes generally raise their own funds for buildings, but he said it's "stupid, excuse my language," to think that overflowing, predominantly low-income Hispanic parishes won't need help....

Pressed about the University of Dallas, a Catholic school that has struggled financially and has had internal tensions over its academic and theological focus, Bishop Farrell expressed support for the administration. He noted that colleges are hotbeds of conflict, and he said helping UD boost its endowment is on his long list of things to do.

From his first day here, Bishop Farrell was teased about whether he would shift allegiance from the Washington Redskins to the Dallas Cowboys. He attended their game here last season and rooted for his new home team, recalling with surprise "how quick and easy it was to become a full-fledged Cowboys fan."

The largest US diocese without an auxiliary bishop, Dallas marks another milestone tomorrow as, for the first time in nearly two decades, it gives one of its own to lead another local church.

Previously rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Bishop-elect Michael Duca of Shreveport will be ordained and installed at a noontime liturgy (1pm Eastern, 1700GMT) in the western Louisiana city's convention center. A webstream link is already live, and the diocesan paper has posted its commemorative edition.

K-Far will serve as a principal co-consecrator alongside Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe (another rector-emeritus of Irving) and the local metropolitan, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans.

PHOTO: Courtney Perry/Dallas Morning News